When I saw the first previews for “Gangs Of New York”:http://us.imdb.com/Title?0217505, I thought “now there’s a disaster writ large.” Further previews just reinforced this impression, and the uneven reviews seemed like a sign that, well, Scorcese succeeded in fooling half the people all time. I was just as happy to stay in the other half.
So I came into seeing this DVD with a prejudice. But, I felt like a Big Movie, and it did have all of the Oscar nods and whatnot going for it. Maybe something I should see, eh?
In Big Period Piece such as this, there are a few concerns one has right off the bat — regardless of the specific picture, really. These are:
# Is it just Too Darned Long?
# Is it too much of a melodrama?
# Is it too little of a melodrama?
# Is there any pretense at historical accuracy, or must one suspend disbelief?
# Can anybody in the darned thing act?
# Did they have any idea how to finish the pic?
As generic questions, these must be considered first. After surviving this gantlet, the movie can be judged on its specific traits — but if it fails the majority of the above tests, it can be consigned to the scrap-heap without any actual thought.
So, in order:
# Gangs Of New York was not too long
# Gangs Of New York did not really go overboard on the melodrama
# But, at the same time, Scorcese (and Daniel Day-Lewis!) totally appreciated the melodramatic aspects of the movie and used them to their advantage
# Seems pretty accurate, and shows an overlooked perspective of a well-known time
# At a minimum, Day-Lewis and a bunch of the supporting cast can act; Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz we’ll consider seperately
# No, Scorcese had no idea how to finish this (we call this “French Director’s Disease”)
So Gangs Of New York makes it by, too many strikes against it for greatness but plenty of check-marks to get a star and maybe even a smiley face sticker.
This movie cannot be considered without concentrating on the man whose character lies at its center and whose acting dominates every scene. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the evil Bill The Butcher to absolute perfection. Every line is delivered just right, every motion carries the nuance of the character. There is not a moment when you doubt how this man becomes the leader he is; there are many moments when everyone seems to be a supporting character orbiting about him.
Also nominated for an Academy Award ™ was Cameron Diaz, who performs creditably but in no particular way any better than much of the rest of the supporting cast. Like many, she’s afflicted with an occasional Irish accent. Her part is smaller than it seems, which does her no favors either; she’s given no chance to take over the screen.
Leo is given such a chance, but this is no Titanic. He entirely lacks the hard edge his character ought to have; perhaps a Joaquin Phoenix or, dare I say, Colin Farrell would have been a better choice. DiCaprio seems nothing but young throughout, and while his tough has much the aspect of a up-and-coming thug, it’s an aspect lent by his general air of Tom Saywerishness, not his inner strength.
The script, however, is good enough to move on even with this weak actor in the lead. Even follows naturally from event and even the moments in which Leo needs to be strong are not sunk by his softness. But it’s really the scenes featuring Day-Lewis, especially the throwaway ones, that give the movie its tone and continuity.
At the end the movie falters. To have our two heroes face each other down would be so obvious as to be anticlimactic, but there’s no reason to end the movie any other way. So the rest of America intrudes, for the one and only time; but it’s been foreshadowed so well that you don’t notice.
And it’s the end that I had the most problems with philosophically as well. Sure the draft is an awful thing, and sure many immigrants were exploited into joining the Union army during the Civil War. But, historically, those immigrants ended the war not Irish, or German, but American — sharing experiences and a language with the people they were going home to live with. thus the draft stirred and heated our melting pot. And the immigrants who died — and there were many, but it was not just immigrants who died, for the Civil War was a meat grinder — died for the cause of freedom.
That, I suppose, was Scorcese’s final message — that those who fought in the Gangs of New York died for freedom in their own way as well. And that, folks, is a Big Message to end this review of a Big Film.